Mike E. Smith Profile

Name Mike E. Smith
Born Aug 10, 1965
Age 55 years
Birthplace Dexter, New Mexico, USA
Height 5ft 4ins

Triple Crown winner Justify and history-making filly Zenyatta among legendary jockey's greatest mounts.

Michael Earl Smith grew up in New Mexico, where his father George was a small-time jockey who rode horses trained by Mike's uncle, Greg. Growing up, Mike would often visit his uncle's farm in Dexter and from the age of eight, he helped to break his uncle's horses. At 11 years of age, he started riding horses and at 15 he dropped out of the ninth grade to focus on horse racing full-time, getting an official jockey licence a year later.

Early career

As a teenager, Mike had his first races at a bush track that is now called Wayward Farms in Artesia. Mike made a name for himself there, riding quarter horses in match races (one-on-one duels) and made a little money from owners who recognised his ability to push a horse to its full potential.

With his uncle Greg as a mentor, Mike started riding thoroughbreds at Sunland Park, Santa Fe Downs and Albuquerque Downs. The oldest race on Mike E. Smith's record is a maiden special weight from May 7, 1982, at Santa Fe. He was 16 at the time. One month and around 40 races later, he got his first wins at Santa Fe riding California Reign and Future Man on the same day. Within a year, he had left New Mexico to ride at tracks across the country, eventually settling on the east coast.

1990s - Climbing the east-coast circuit

In the early 1990s, Mike E. Smith's career rocketed. From 1991 to 1993, he was the leading jockey in New York. In 1992, he won his first Breeders' Cup race atop Lure, claiming the Breeders' Cup Mile. He went on to retain this title with the same mount in 1993.

He was now at the top of his game, having won the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Jockey both in 1993 and 1994. He held the record for stakes wins with 68, won two races in that year's Breeders' Cup (the Sprint and the Turf), and received the Mike Venezia Memorial Award for outstanding sportsmanship. He was also picked by Warren Croll Jr. to ride Holy Bull, a legendary horse that won nine out of 12 graded stakes starts from 1993 to 1995.

1998 accidents and a new beginning

In March 1998, Mike took a fall and broke a shoulder. He fell again in August at Saratoga, this time breaking two vertebrae that put him in a body cast for months. This lengthy absence during the peak of his powers was far from ideal.

He moved to California in 2000, forcing him to find new relationships with the west-coast trainers after leaving behind ones in New York that had known him for years.

2000s - Vindication, Giacomo and Zenyatta

In 2002, Bob Baffert was looking for a jockey to ride his two-year-old colt Vindication. This was before Baffert had become a superstar trainer, so top jockeys were not lining up outside his door. Bob saw Mike E. Smith's record in New York and recognised that he could do much worse.

Smith rode Vindication to four wins, culminating in a dominating performance at the 2002 Breeders' Cup Juvenile, where Vindication won by 2¾ lengths. Unfortunately, Baffert then took Smith off the horse to get one of the top-ranking jockeys at the time, Jerry Bailey, to ride him in the 2003 Kentucky Derby. Baffert may have regretted his decision because two weeks after switching jockeys, Vindication suffered an injury and was forced to retire. Meanwhile, Smith had proven himself to the west-coast trainers.

Two years later, Mike finally had a chance in the Kentucky Derby with Giacomo, but it was a long shot. Unlike Vindication, who had been the favourite for the Kentucky Derby, Giacomo was entering the gate at odds of 50/1 after finishing fourth in the Santa Anita Derby last time out.

However, trainer John Shirreffs said Smith believed Giacomo could win the Kentucky Derby before anyone else. "Mike was the one who encouraged us to go on," Shirreffs said in a 2020 interview for Paulick Report. "He thought he'd do better at the mile and a quarter."

On the day of the race, Smith gave an interview to ESPN in which he explained that the Kentucky Derby would have a faster pace and he could use this to his advantage to push Giacomo in the last stretch past the tired competition. That is exactly what happened as Giacomo won by half a length to become the tied-third longest odds horse to win the Kentucky Derby.

In 2008, Shirreffs was training Zenyatta and knew the horse was a once-in-a-lifetime athlete. He picked Mike E. Smith to ride her in her fourth year, maybe figuring that if Mike could understand the potential hidden in Giacomo, he could do it again with an obvious talent like Zenyatta.

Zenyatta is beaten by Blame (far side) in the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic

Sure enough, Mike rode Zenyatta to victory 17 times in 18 starts and guided her into the history books as the first mare to win the Breeders' Cup Classic in 2009. This also meant she became the first horse to win two different Breeders' Cup races after she had taken the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic in 2008 under Smith. In this race, she made a big move in the final turn after entering the first turn in last place, finishing the winner by 1½ lengths. Her only defeat was a heartbreaking photo-finish second place at the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic, a loss Smith admitted was partly his fault.

2010s to the present - Justify and the future

Smith rode many great horses after Zenyatta, but none of them was near her level until he got the call to ride Bob Baffert's Justify.

Baffert was aiming for the Triple Crown and, now that his career had exploded, wanted only the best available jockey. The best was Mike E. Smith, whose star had also risen since being dumped from Vindication by Baffert ahead of the 2003 Kentucky Derby.

Justify's record may be short, confined as it is to 2018, but six wins from six including all three Triple Crown races says it all.

Justify completes the US Triple Crown in 2018 by winning the Belmont Stakes

Throughout the 2010s, Smith also kept winning Breeders' Cup races. These was the Breeders' Cup Classic in 2011 and 2016, the Breeders' Cup Distaff in 2012, the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint in 2012 and 2013, the Breeders' Cup Marathon in 2013, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf in 2013, the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint in 2014 and 2016, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies in 2015 and 2017, and the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile in 2016.

He also won the Belmont Stakes in 2010 and 2013 with Drosselmeyer and Palace Malice respectively, and the Kentucky Oaks in 2013 and 2017 with Princess of Sylmar and Abel Tasman.

As of March 2021, Smith held the record for most Grade 1 victories with 217 wins. His schedule has slowed down due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, but he wants to hit the ground running when restrictions are lifted. In an interview with WDRB in August 2020, he said: "I want to get back to work. Plus, I miss riding. I truly miss it."

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